The Time has Come to Reevaluate Strategy for Change

R&L: How valuable are mediating institutions to community life?

Higgins: They play an extraordinarily valuable role. The family is probably the most important institution. Yet it cannot flourish without communal support. Just the other day I was talking with a cab driver who works 12-plus hour days, as does his wife, in order to keep their children in private school which they believe is essential for their children’s success. But, while the parents were working outside of the home, the children had fallen in with some very bad company which led to parental discipline. The government then stepped in and told the parents to refrain from disciplining their children or they would be taken away and placed in foster care. This couple had already lost one child to this process and will soon face a hearing. In this matter they don’t know what to do because, if what the father says is true, the community is not supportive of their efforts to provide better opportunities for their children, and keep them on the strait and narrow. Institutions which support parents who seek to raise their children properly become imperative.

R&L: How do government policies impede the success of community-based organizations?

Higgins: Government impedes on several levels. First, it impedes at the family level by disenfranchising the father. There is no reason to have a father around if you are so inclined, if you don’t need the money, if the money is coming from somewhere else or, in fact, if having the father around is a net drain on your income. In a recent television program regarding gang problems in Little Rock, Arkansas, fathers were the most salient absence in the whole hour of footage. They were not available to impose any form of order in the lives of the young men. By making fathers unnecessary, government has basically subsidized what Barbara Whitehead calls the “separatist primal desires” of men and women–that is for men to inseminate and leave, and for women to be left alone to play with their dolls. Under these conditions, the essential cohesion that two responsible parents offer a child is missing.

Government programs pose serious problems for community institutions when they directly compete with those organizations which attempt to provide charity while seeking to assist the individual beyond materialistic ends. Properly performed charity not only feeds you, but keeps your self-respect intact. It teaches you to work, and helps make the connection between what others do for you and what you are expected to do for yourself. When a government agency down the street neither demands nor expects anything from aid recipients, entities that wish to impose conditions which will ultimately lead to the betterment of the recipients struggle that much more.

R&L: The Church and other religious mediating institutions provide a positive alternative, don’t they?

Higgins: Religious institutions are central because they are an organizing force within the community. They are not simply an outlet for responsible action within the community; they also encourage and remind us in an organized, systematic way to assist others.

R&L: In the past, you have noted that some religious leaders fail to uphold this vision.

Higgins: There is a problem of late, particularly with the mainline denominations, and certainly with some of the Catholic bishops. The problem lies in their calls for social action. I am left with the distinct feeling that these clergy have abandoned one of religion’s most important roles: to act as an agent for change and improvement within a community. But they refuse to do it themselves, and instead become goads for government action. Thus, in essence, they lose their moral authority and we lose one of the primary institutions for affecting responsible change.

R&L: Could you speculate as to why this has become the trend? What sort of forces have caused the leadership of the established churches to behave in this way?

Higgins: Government solutions are very tempting. If you think about it, who wouldn’t want to go to a central entity which has the power to immediately affect the entire country with vast resources? It’s much more satisfying to feel you have done something on a national level rather than merely in your own back yard; though in reality it is more effective to pursue the latter. It seems to me that many people became uncomfortable with religion, particularly in the ’60s with its secular trends. Even the religious people bought into the idea that one shouldn’t impose one’s values on someone else. They wanted to do good without any strings attached. So if you asked the government to do it, your personal sense of good would remain intact and you would be less criticized.

Also, the churches use government more and more because the reasons for doing good have changed. The question is–What needs to change? The individual or society? You used to do good because you wanted to help the person in need have a better life by helping themselves. Later thinkers amend society, rather than the individual. Government policies were thus pursued because they made us feel good about ourselves; we were “doing something” by calling for a government program. Considerably less care was paid to whether something actually worked and benefited its intended beneficiaries.

It was also a cheap and easy way out. When the government tackles a problem, you have a lot more leisure time because you don’t have to volunteer yourself. Someone else solves the problem for you while you feel morally virtuous for making grand statements about what the government ought to be doing about it.

R&L: You have been active in the United States in trying to build up communities. What sort of obstacles might Eastern Europe encounter in its effort to start again after so many years of communism?

Higgins: One of the greatest deterrents, particularly in the Soviet Union, is people’s refusal to give up certain erroneous ideas. Misguided notions of what constitutes equality seem to be one of the biggest errors. There is still a real social stigma attached to anyone who excels in work or income. People believe that the success of one is acquired at the expense of another. Many still accept the false notion that the economy is a fixed pie in which it is morally reprehensible if anyone gets a larger slice than another.

Secondly, as changes occur, and change occurs rapidly, it will cause much distress. People are being asked to make immediate advances we have made over a much longer time period. There are prices to be paid for every advance, not least of which is the feeling of discomfort of losing what is known and familiar.

R&L: Could you suggest why there has been a severing between public and private morality?

Higgins: The fewer ethics that guide society, the greater the intrusion of laws. You could argue that the number of laws a society has is directly and inversely proportionate to the amount of its ethical self-governance. We have become highly litigious. We have lost sight in many instances of any kind of objective value of real harm and we are becoming a society where there is a new found “right” to not be offended, which is obviously unsustainable.

R&L: There seems to be a disconnection between rights and responsibilities. Could you speak to that problem?

Higgins: The separation results from a misunderstanding of the word “rights.” We have created a new class of rights which are wholly antithetical to what the word used to mean. Rights were always the minimum standard of expected behavior. They were negative by definition and applied to all people equally, never demanding anything from anyone else. They were also limited. There were always circumstances which would modify them; not yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is a classic example.

We now view rights as positive, shifting with time and the individual’s circumstance. They also require something from you for me, which is a far stretch from what a right once was. Consequently, people have no notion of a corollary obligation or duty attached to rights. People claim they have a right to whatever they happen to want at the moment, which is not what a right is at all.

R&L: You have discussed the role character plays in our national politics. How significant a role does character play in the life of a public servant?

Higgins: To be honest, I wish that it played less of a role. Though I will concede that it does depend on the particular character issue in question. There have certainly been many great national leaders who have had less than admirable personal lives. We should consider the manner in which they handled their indiscretion, and whether or not they felt shame and recognized that they were doing something they ought not do. Unfortunately, individuals with leadership capabilities do not necessarily have fine characters.

R&L: From your philanthropic activities, you’ve observed how many foundations lose the original vision of their founders. How do foundations prevent this from occurring?

Higgins: This is a simple question with an incredibly complicated answer. In short, those who devise foundations should do so with clearly focussed charters. Even then, they always run the risk that their message will be subverted due to lack of accountability. The best thing to do is follow the wisdom of founders such as John M. Olin who basically gave his own foundation a limited life. It will not be run by people who never knew the founder and who couldn’t care less what he believed. Donors would be much better off spending a much larger amount of money up front on causes they support.

R&L: What is the political orientation of most American foundations? Some claim that big-money foundations are conservative, yet for politically-active foundations, the opposite appears to be true.

Higgins: The data that I have seen of politically self-identified foundations indicates that 75 percent (by dollar volume) are left of center and 25 percent are right of center. I believe the Ford Foundation alone outweighs all the conservative foundations put together.

However, larger foundations do tend to support better established institutions primarily because foundations have part-time people on their boards who don’t want to be embarrassed by any kind of irregularity in a grantee. So the inclination is to give money to large well-established institutions that are not going to do anything that will come back to haunt them. There isn’t a lot of fresh thinking that goes on in the foundation world.

R&L: Why is it that corporations rarely fund conservative causes?

Higgins: One often has the feeling that corporate executives park their brains at the door when it comes to public policy issues. They rarely contemplate the essential foundations of their beliefs. Too many of them attempt to buy support from groups hostile toward business by making contributions. Ultimately this teaches the grantees to bark louder in order to receive more money.

R&L: How should private foundations and charities prepare for welfare reform?

Higgins: When reform began to look like a possibility last spring, I and others began to push an idea–which Newt Gingrich has picked up–whereby charitable contributions will actually receive a tax credit. This would stimulate charitable giving in a dramatic way.

I strongly recommend Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion to anyone involved with philanthropy who desires to learn how charities can be most effective. It is critical to support programs that actually work and that make a difference in a particular community. We will all benefit if those who get involved in charitable organizations follow some of the effective principles of charity outlined in this book.

R&L: As I understand it, you’ve known Newt Gingrich for some time now. Will Speaker Gingrich be willing and able to follow through with governmental reform?

Higgins: I think he will surprise a lot of people. Newt is a bold visionary. He is quite convinced that the American public is in many ways far more prepared for radical change than most politicians would care to admit. Newt understands that his own political future rests on being a man of his word, and I believe that he is very committed to implementing not merely half-way measures but true and effective changes.

R&L: For years, many Republicans were content to maintain and benefit from big-government–to be part of the establishment–rather than cut it.

Higgins: They were “me-too” Republicans. They wanted what the Democrats wanted but only 80 percent of it. We now have our very first “me-too” Democrat–President Clinton.

R&L: Given the recent Republican successes in the House, do you see this problem continuing?

Higgins: Certainly. However, I think the House freshmen are not interested in playing that game. Being a minority party holds no appeal for them. Their vision and agenda are very clear. Even in the Senate, the fact that Simpson was not chosen as majority whip indicates that there really has been a shift in the dominant power in the Republican Party.

R&L: You wrote in Policy Review just a couple years ago that society was ready for radical change and you maintained that position all the way up to November.

Higgins: In fact, I specifically predicted a Republican House majority in mid-October on CNN and they laughed.

R&L: So, how were you able to acquire this great instinct for political prediction?

Higgins: I have no idea. I think I simply got lucky. First, I looked at the phenomenal degree of change in the leading political parties of other countries. In almost every instance, the magnitude of the change had not been properly caught by the pollsters. Second, considering the level of voter disgust in the U.S., and particularly in an off-year election, the people who were angry and upset would have a much higher motivation to vote. Those who were not angry were probably, at best, neutral. There is very little support among the American people for the liberal ideas which animated most of those defeated incumbents. Consequently, the stage was set for an imbalance in the turnout which would lead to an electoral result different from what the pollsters foresaw.

R&L: What should society do, in addition to what we have already discussed, in terms of putting in place a strategy to take advantage of the recent election results?

Higgins: For years, we’ve been in a position of besieging the castle and therefore had built a very active catapult industry. Suddenly, we found ourselves inside the castle, still making catapults and other devices we no longer need. We must think very seriously about where we are and retool in order to leverage the opportunity we have to implement our ideas in a way that best takes advantage of the circumstance. We must avoid doing things simply because they have always been done that way.

Human nature makes us reluctant to make the transition to new ways of thinking. But it is very important that we all reevaluate where we and our institutions are and how best to proceed from here.